There are easily 1,001 good reasons to want to interview Peggy Seeger, but we have 20 minutes and waffling won’t do. “Now what is your agenda for today?” asks a woman who has packed a lot into her life.
I begin with the age question. This famous figure in folk music (and “something of a firebrand,” according to the Daily Telegraph which wouldn’t have approved of her Greenham Common protesting) turns 80 four days before her Sage Gateshead gig on June 21.
“Eighty sounds terrifying to me,” she confides from her home near Oxford. “Seventy didn’t, 60 didn’t, nor 50 or 40. But 80 sounds like a watershed.”
The voice, I have to say, doesn’t sound 80. It is both soft and strong, as you might expect from one whose life has been devoted largely to folk – storytelling through music.
Peggy hasn’t been well, she tells me. Two serious operations set her back last year and she has “this huge arthritic knuckle” which has compromised her banjo playing.
“I have to work to keep my hands and voice right,” she says.
But if this is a birthday which terrifies Peggy, this is going to be a celebration all her fans can share. The concert tour, with sons Neill and Calum MacColl, takes in 16 towns and cities.
“They asked me what I wanted for my 80th birthday so I took the opportunity to be optimistic and I said, ‘I always enjoy playing with the two of you’. I said it might be my last tour so I wanted them to join me.
“Neill is 56, Calum 52, and they’re both wonderful musicians. I get a chance to have time with them as we travel in the tour bus.”
It promises to be “proper touring”, she says appreciatively.
A woman who has released umpteen albums, both solo and with late husband Ewan MacColl, has done more than her fair share of weary slogging from gig to gig.
But this will be no trip down memory lane. Peggy’s 22nd solo album, Everything Changes, came out last year and wowed the critics. It was the first album she had recorded with a band rather than solo or as a duo.
Peggy’s vocals drew praise while the song We Watch You Slip Away was singled out. It was written by Peggy and her daughter-in-law, the singer Kate St John, and is about Kate’s mother who suffered from dementia.
“It took me out of my comfort zone,” says Peggy. “A huge amount of the words are Kate’s. I just listened to what she wanted to say because it didn’t happen to me.”
The album also includes Swim To The Star, a collaboration with Calum, which was written to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and was judged ‘best original song’ at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Peggy was born into a musical family in New York. Her father was a folklorist and musicologist and her mother an avant garde composer.
Like older brothers Mike and Pete, Peggy was drawn into music. Living in London in the 1950s, she sang and played the banjo. There she met and fell in love with English folk singer Ewan MacColl who left his wife to be with her.
Two strong individuals, they released a string of successful albums. They were married in 1977 and were together until MacColl’s death following heart surgery in 1989.
Peggy says she now works as hard as she can. “But when I look back at my time with Ewan MacColl, when there were the three children (the two boys and a daughter) and we had all these projects on the go, I would say that, yes, I was a powerhouse.
“But I did pay for it after he died. I collapsed and my present partner, Irene, whom I had right from that point... she and my daughter, Kitty, stepped in and kept me going.”
One of those good reasons to interview Peggy is to ask about one of the loveliest of songs. Ewan wrote The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in 1957 and it is said he wrote it for Peggy.
Peggy says: “I was going on radio in LA and they wanted a modern love song that wasn’t very long. I was telling him about this and he said, ‘how about this?’ He sang it over the phone to me and I wrote it down, which I knew how to do, and he said, ‘It’s your song to sing’. It took off from there.”
It certainly did. The song, covered by many artists, was a 1972 mega-hit for Roberta Flack.
“We were horrified by Roberta Flack’s version. We loved the royalties but she turned it into, we thought, a major self-indulgence.”
Peggy, who loved a man and now loves a woman, knows Irene won’t be upset when she confesses to missing Ewan every day. “I miss the singing. He sang all the time, especially in the car.”
I ask Peggy what makes a good song and, not surprisingly, she gives a practical answer.
“I get given a lot of CDs and I listen to them all. I put on track one and if it doesn’t grab me in the first 20 seconds, I might not get to track two.”
For a demonstration of what a good song should be, get to Sage Gateshead on June 21 when Peggy and her sons will be entertaining in Hall Two. Tickets: www.sagegateshead.com or 0191 443 4661.